This op-ed was written in association with The Op Ed Project.
Selling or procuring minors for sex is against federal and state law -- and any moral person's code of ethics. Yet, there is no denying that each day and night, dozens of our own children are being bought and sold right here in Dallas. Nor is there any disagreement that the pimps and traffickers who sell these children are being assisted by a Dallas corporate "neighbor," Backpage.com. Adding irony to insult and injury, Backpage's national headquarters are located in The Observer building on Oak Lawn Avenue -- across the street from The Scottish Rite Hospital for Children.
Backpage, which is owned by Village Voice Media, nets more than $22 million a year from its business of providing an online and print "adult" marketplace for female bodies -- alongside ads for cars, rental properties and childcare services. Although Backpage purports to market to and for adults, law enforcement agencies across the metroplex have repeatedly found ads selling Dallas-area children on Backpage's sites.
How does this business work? First, vulnerable girls are targeted, lured, tricked, courted, groomed, branded and literally held in captivity in secret by traffickers and pimps. Then, incredibly, their bodies are offered for sale in living rooms and offices across the country -- via the Internet and in magazines also owned by VVM, including The Dallas Observer.
Craigslist, another Internet marketplace, recently bowed to national pressure to close its "adult" section. Many of Craigslist's "adult" advertisers migrated quickly and directly to Backpage. Backpage's typical responses to attacks on its business involve First Amendment rights and the claim that if it weren't selling children's bodies, someone else, possibly someone less "responsible," would be. But, the First Amendment didn't get in the way of eradicating cigarette ads that targeted children (remember "Joe Camel"?). As for the claim of responsible child sex trafficking; the idea is an abhorrent oxymoron.
The City of Dallas and Dallas County are both leaders in the fight against child slavery. The Dallas Police Department was one of the first in the nation to develop a program, the High Risk Victims Unit, to identify and work with prostituted children. The Dallas County Juvenile Department is in the midst of a capital campaign to triple the capacity of the Letot Center, which cares for victims once they are rescued. With 96 beds, it will be the largest dedicated shelter for trafficking victims in the country.
Still, as long as Backpage is allowed to operate securely in the heart of Oak Lawn, Dallas is complicit in the trafficking and exploitation of children. Fifty-one attorneys general and 19 U.S. senators, including Texas Senator John Cornyn, have demanded that Backpage shut down its "adult" services ads, where children are hidden in plain sight. On June 20, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in Phoenix, where Backpage also has offices, and New York City, where VVM has its headquarters, to demand that Backpage stop selling children. In Phoenix, the protests were organized by the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation, in recognition that this form of child exploitation is actually modern-day slavery.
Backpage is a very bad neighbor. It is time for Dallas citizens and the Dallas City Council to join the nationwide fight to demand that Backpage stop making a profit from selling children. Not on our watch. Not our children. Not in our backyard!